Nicole Braley & Jim Cummings
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Nicole Braley & Jim Cummings

Co-Chairs, Grand Circle Foundation's Rebuilding Together Boston Event

At Grand Circle Foundation, we believe that engaging in community service is a gift from the heart. And no one is more generous with their time than associates Nicole Braley and Jim Cummings, for whom the Foundation's marquee annual service event amounts to a full-time job—on top of their regular job—for several months of the year.

No wonder these two giving hearts found each other.

Building a Life While Rebuilding Boston

The event in question is Rebuilding Together Boston (RTB). RTB is the local chapter of the nation's largest volunteer organization preserving and revitalizing low-income, elderly, and/or disabled homeowners and communities. Each year, Grand Circle selects a single site for refurbishment during the one-day event.

Jim began volunteering for the annual service event in 1998 and quickly assumed a crew chief role. A couple of years later, when the outgoing chair of the event asked Jim if he would be willing to take over management of it, Jim didn't hesitate. "I always looked forward to it and even brought my kids," he says. It was a lesson in giving that stuck. Both daughters, now grown and on their own, continue to give back to their communities.

Nicole also made the RTB event a part of her annual calendar. "I started with Grand Circle in March 2000," she recalls, "and I joined the event that April. I thought it would be a good way to get involved in the company and meet people." What she found was much more than that. Meeting the homeowner and seeing how a home could be transformed in just day "gave me a real sense of accomplishment," as she puts it.

Like Jim, Nicole assumed more responsibility each year, becoming a crew chief in 2005 and joining Jim as co-chair in 2006.

Making It Look Easy

Even though the actual event is only a day long, it requires months of planning and preparation to make it run smoothly. Jim and Nicole meet with RTB staff as early as January to begin the site selection.

"It's the single biggest community service event for the company. Over 100 associates with their families and friends turn out," Jim reports. "And it's also one of the largest Rebuilding Together events in the country." Because of the scope of the project, the site has to be carefully selected. Many of the organizations that volunteer are contractors and other skilled tradespeople. Grand Circle's enthusiastic volunteers, on the other hand, are largely unskilled when it comes to functions like plumbing and electrical work. "We have to be careful that we don't overpromise," Jim says. "So we look for a site where man hours are what count—for example, for painting, landscaping, and clean up."

Of course, selecting the site is only the beginning process. There are myriad tasks associated with organizing an event of such magnitude, from determining what needs to be done, lining up crew chiefs, and obtaining supplies to finding volunteers, ordering hats and T-shirts, and arranging the catering to feed the hungry crews on the day of the event.

An "A" for Team Effort

Typically, Nicole and Jim are quick to credit others for the success of the event. Still, for them, heading up the RTB event is a full-time job—on top of their regular full-time jobs: Jim's as Director of Application Analysis and Nicole's as Vice President, Traveler Support. "A lot of the things we have to do, like meeting with homeowners and getting supplies, have to happen during work hours," Jim points out, "so sometimes we have to do our regular jobs during off-hours, like evenings and weekends." Still, both are happy to do whatever it takes to make sure the event is a success.

A particularly memorable RTB event for Nicole and Jim occurred in 2009, when the site selected was the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. The cafeteria ceiling was 30' high, so the center's heating bills were enormous. The Grand Circle crew's task was more complex than usual: they were to install a drop ceiling while painting all of the walls. "It was an intense time using scissor jacks and rolling scaffolding," says Jim. "Most of our volunteers had never used that type of equipment. But helping veterans really resonated with our associates."

Nicole adds that working at the center inspired another ongoing event on the Boston office's community service calendar: "Up & Out," in which OAT volunteers help about ten families a year relocate to—and even furnish—new homes. In 2011, "Up & Out" is focusing its efforts on the center and has already helped two veterans make that vital transition. "People really felt connected to the veterans there," she says. "It really felt good to give back to those who gave to the country."

This year's RTB event benefited the Parkside Christian Academy, which serves 150 inner-city Boston students from kindergarten through eighth grade. "I was concerned that we didn't have a homeowner with a story," Nicole reveals. "I wasn't sure that people would get the same sense of accomplishment. But 15 parents and other volunteers from the school showed up. It really helped people connect."

From Caring for Others to Caring for Each Other

Perhaps not surprising, over the years of working closely together on the RTB event, these two individuals with huge hearts began to form a more personal connection. "One of the things that attracted me to RTB was getting to know Jim," Nicole smiles. "I had a crush on him almost from the beginning."

For Jim, on the other hand, friendship didn't evolve into romance until later on. And although their paths crossed at company-wide events and leadership programs, the two work in different departments of the company and might not have gotten to know each other at all if it weren't for RTB. "Working with Jim on RTB really showed me the kind of character he has," Nicole says. "I really respect and admire him."

Happily, they discovered that they share a passion for a number of things in addition to service, such as travel, gardening, skiing, bicycling, camping, and other outdoor activities. And, of course, each other. In November, they became engaged, and on September 18, they'll be married.

What the Future Holds

What the couple most has in common is caring for people, which they bring to their jobs as well as RTB. "Nicole is passionate about the travelers," Jim says. "And since I'm on the technical side of things, I don't have that direct contact with the travelers, but I feel the same way. I'm always thinking about what's best for them and what I can do to make sure they have an excellent experience."

When asked if they will coordinate the RTB event again next year, the couple doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely!" they say simultaneously. "We're so lucky to have the opportunities provided by Grand Circle," Nicole continues. "Opportunities to travel and see the world, and also to get involved in the community."

Jim adds that service contributes to personal growth, as well. "You have to be willing to take risks," he points out. "Every year is different. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to be asked to do. You have to be ready to step outside your comfort zone and ask the right people for the right help."

Once a community service project is successfully completed, however, nothing beats the satisfaction. Nicole sums it up, saying, "It's so important to be involved in community service. You get as much as you give."

Featured in our May 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.